In a quiet rural cemetery southeast of Fife Lake in Springfield Township’s Clark Cemetery are tombstones for Gertrude and John Murphy. What is not carved into Gertrude’s marker is the name and death of her three month old baby that she is holding in her arms when she was buried. Ruth Murphy was being watched by her aunt Mary McKnight when she suddenly died in the summer of 1903. Shortly after returning home, Gertrude died. Mary McKnight was John Murphy’s Sister who came to live with the Murphy’s on their farm after her two husbands and three children died.
About a week after the funeral for Ruth and Gertrude, John died after suffering from seizures and strand contractions of his muscles. It was a local doctor that thought the description of John’s death seemed peculiar and reminded him of what he learned about strychnine poisoning while in medical school. John and Gertrude’s bodies were exhumed and their stomachs sent to the lab at the University of Michigan where traces of strychnine was discovered.
Mary was tried and convicted for the death of her brother and sister-in-law. The early 1900s trial was a media sensation with newspapers reporting on it nation wide. It is believed Mary was responsible for about a dozen deaths making her one of the first female serial killers in the nation. Her motives for the killings are still being debated. Author Tobin T. Buhk has written a book about the infamous murders titled Michigan’s Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary McKnight. It is a fascinated true crime book detailing the story of her crime and life in Northern Michigan at the turn of the century. If you like true crime books I highly recommend reading it. You can read a preview of it on Amazon HERE
P.S. Her family believed she murdered her victims because she enjoyed attending the elaborate funerals of the period.
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